She was an American businesswoman and inventor. She served as the president of the toy manufacturer Mattel Inc., and is remembered for her role in marketing the Barbie doll.
Her husband Elliot Handler and his business partner Harold “Matt” Matson formed a small company to manufacture picture frames, calling it “Mattel” by combining part of their names (“Matt” and “Elliot”). Later, they began using scraps from the manufacturing process to make dollhouse furniture.
Ruth Handler claimed her daughter Barbara, who was becoming a pre-teen, played with paper dolls by pretending they were adults. Handler noted the limitations of the paper dolls, including how the paper clothing failed to attach well. She wanted to produce a three-dimensional plastic “paper doll” with an adult body and a wardrobe of fabric clothing, but her husband and Mr. Matson thought parents would not buy their children a doll with a voluptuous figure. While the Handler family was vacationing in Europe, Ruth Handler saw the German Bild Lilli doll (which was not a children’s toy, but rather an adult gag gift) in a Swiss shop and brought it home. The Lilli doll was a representation of the same concept Ruth had been trying to sell to other Mattel executives.
Once home, she reworked the design of the doll and named her Barbie after the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara. Barbie debuted at the New York toy fair on March 12, 1959 but was not an immediate success. When Disney introduced The Mickey Mouse Club children’s television show, Mattel invested heavily in television advertising. The TV commercials for the Barbie doll paid off and Barbie rocketed Mattel and the Handlers to fame and fortune. Subsequently, they would add a boyfriend for Barbie named Ken, after the Handlers’ son, and many other “friends and family” to Barbie’s world.